Monday, May 28, 2007

Data packrat

I'm finally moving forward with my plan to get all my life data into digital form.  The infrastructure is there (see earlier posts), with lots of redundant disk space and subversion repositories.  Now I just have to clean out the file cabinets.

All the various entities that send me monthly statements (banks, brokerages, utilities) are trying to get me onto some sort of "paperless" plan (and, IMO, going about it in a pretty stupid way) by offering some sort of online statements.  That's great going forward, but what about existing statements?  (And, how long should I really hold on to these records?  Can I throw away those tax returns from 1987?  Won't they be useful to my biographer?)  They all seem to offer some set of past statements in downloadable form; some going back only a few months, some going back seven years. 

Most will only let you see the older statements if you agree to let them stop mailing you statements.  (You can rescind that agreement at any time, so you know what I did.  I don't really _want_ the paper statements if I can have good PDFs, but e-mail is so unreliable that I hesitate to let them use e-mail to send me important notices that might be indicators of identity theft or other bad things.)  So I downloaded all the statements I could find, scanned some of the others I thought were worth having, and relegated the paper copies to a box in the basement that, if it got destroyed, I wouldn't be upset. 

Not one of the dozen banks, utilities, or brokerages has the statement download thing right.  None of them have a "download all my statements" feature, which make downloading seven years worth pretty annoying.  (And all are implemented in ways that prevent you from shortcutting around their bad UIs or scripting it yourself.)  None offers any sort of scriptable interface for downloading statements, so if you want to continue to gather statements, you have to visit twelve web sites.  (I'd like to have the PDFs delivered right into my Quicken; they've been talking about electronic bill presentment for years but I don't see it here yet.)  Some make it easier by offering an option to e-mail you the PDF monthly in addition to the physical delivery; some only offer that as an alternative to the physical delivery.  Some (Wells Fargo) won't even let you download any e-statements unless you consent to online-only delivery (and the online statements don't have the check images that the physical statements do.)  Guess I'll be "consenting" for them five minutes a year to get the past year's statements, yuck. 

Bulk scanning turns out to be not so easy with cheap consumer grade scanners.  I bought a Visioneer RoadWarrior for receipts and such, but use the scanning features of my HP LaserJet 3050 for bulk scanning because it has a document feeder.  But its still pretty slow, and the software sucks.  (I'm surprised that the throughput with the RoadWarrior is bound not by the physical scanning speed, but the software that turns it into the appropriate file format and drops it into a drop folder.)  So I ended up not scanning everything I thought I would, at least not in the first round.  Slowly migrating...


  1. I highly suggest DownloadThemAll for FireFox -- it makes getting all the PDFs off a particular page pretty easy.

    Now, I'm not sure how well it works with authenticated sessions and the like...but it's at least worth a shot.

  2. i honestly wonder why there hasnt been a trustworthy online service yet, which came up with the idea to manage ALL of your offline datasheets. Something like those online dvd-rentalshops, where you pay a monthly fee and they send you dvds on a regular basis. Now what i wanna see is a system, where you pay your monthly fee, they send you (each month or something) an amount of postpaid envelops where you pot in your sheets, and they scan them for you, archive them etc..

    i'd pay a lot for this ;)

  3. Yep, I thought about this as a business about fifteen years ago. Bill providers could provide data in some sort of EDI format, the aggregator could combine all the bills and send one mailing instead of ten, and could accept a single check and carve it up among the various billers. It made business sense then, when bill providers were spending a lot to print and mail bills and process payments. They're all jumping on the "e-statements" bandwagon now, but none of them have figured out how to do this in a way the customers actually want. I'm really surprised that Quicken hasn't been successful here, they already have relationships with most financial institutions and volume billers (like utilities), and have already won the hearts and minds of customers who want a single point of contact with their entire financial picture. The financial industry has beeing talking about electronic bill presentment for years, but they still have yet to consider what the _customer_ wants, which I think has been a big impediment.